I do splurge at literary festivals (it’s near enough the only time I’m in a bookshop) and then the books take their chances amongst the TBR mountains at home.  With the 2010 AyeWrite festival (and more impulse buys)  only a month away, I thought it was time to pick up some of those neglected literary festival purchases.

Enter The Credit Draper, purchased at AyeWrite 2009 because it was published by Scottish publishers Two Ravens Press, whose fiction catalogue I “follow”.  The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous because the book is reissued today by Five Leaves Publications.

First question: what is a credit draper? Turns out it’s a tinker,  a travelling salesman and this draper’s route is in the Western Highlands of Scotland.  But I’m running ahead of myself.  Let’s go back to the beginning, or rather 1911.

12-year old Avram when threatened with conscription into the Russian Army is shipped to Scotland by his mother where he is adopted by the Kahn family, part of the tightly-knit Jewish community in the Glasgow Gorbals.  The story follows the trials and tribulations of  this young non-English speaking Jewish lad as he assimilates with varying degrees of success into both Jewish and Scottish communities.  When he discovers his talent for football and his ambition to play for Celtic, the scene is set for conflict because football games are played on a Saturday, the sabbath, the day of rest.

Avram is sent to the Highlands to become a credit draper, an apprentice to his Uncle Mendel, a gambling whiskey lover yet paradoxically an staunch Orthodox Jew.   Yet Avram has determined to set aside his Jewry and it’s during his time in the Highlands that he grows to manhood, realises some deeply cherished ambitions and achieves a measure of success.  Yet the control he has over his life is an illusion – those Jewish/Scottish tensions are about to resurface in an unexpected and controversial ending.  (And a brave move for a debut novelist.)

The move to the Highlands also allows Simons to explore the duality of Scotland’s urban and rural communities.

I’ve never read a novel that explores Jewishness in such detail and I found it fascinating.  Also the idea of Scotland, particularly the tenement flats in Glasgow,  as a haven for the persecuted race was new to me.  The following, admittedly jaundiced view of Jacob Stein, the Mr Big of the Jewish community,  struck a chord:

There is so much hatred between the Protestants and the Catholics … And when they are not hating each other, they continue to hate the English.  Hah! What a wonderful city Glasgow is.  No-one has any hatred left over for us Jews.

Can national differences be overcome? Speaking of emigration

The Scots.  They never seemed to return.  They went to far-flung places like Canada and New Zealand and India and there they stayed. They colonized, they set down roots, they established their church, they taught people their proud ways they sang their songs that seemed to long for the return they would never make. they lived life in straight lines …. The Jews …trod lightly on the land.  Their suitcases were always packed.  Their return tickets were forever hidden under the matresses.  They kept their songs unto themselves.  The Jews were forever moving in circles.

The figure of Uncle Mendel is where circular Jew meets linear Scot.  What does it says that he’his personality is somewhat shambolic.

Other characters are symbolic too.  Avram shares his adolescent home with Celia and Nathan.  The latter is a sickly invalid who is thought to be a lamed vav, one of the 36 righteous men who bear all the sins and sorrows of the world.  He is bed-ridden during the years of World War One recovering only when peace is declared.  Celia is a bit of mystery.  Arguably Avram’s first love, she rejects him as he leaves for the Highlands and remains off-page until the closing chapters.  Throughout the novel we hear of her political activism – she becomes a suffragette – but these details are deliberate teasers, a signpost to Simons’s recently published 2nd novel, The Liberation of Celia Kahn.

I’m actually quite pleased that I left The Credit Draper on the shelf for so long.  Waiting two years to discover the impact on that ending on the characters would have driven me frantic.   So novel #2 will be read in the next couple of weeks.  I’m interested in watching Simons’s development as a writer.  Will the occasional overwritten phrase be eliminated? (Since when did horses have clawing hooves?) Will he have ironed out the flaws in pacing? (The final denouement is too sudden.)  Of course, I’m very curious to see how he handles the feminine point of view and female preoccupations.  Celia, my dear, your reader awaits.

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